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A Healthy Death: A second-year medical student’s perspective

by Margaret Walker

How would you like to die? When I was a child, I hoped that I would die of old age in my sleep. Simply not waking up one day didn’t seem so scary. However, my transition into adulthood and medicine has forced me to recognize that “old age” has little to do with one’s actual years of life, and it happens to go by a variety of aliases: heart failure, cancer, arthritis, kidney failure, diabetes, and so many more. Today, we have a physiologic understanding of what is happening to the body; we have a thousand different terms to describe the events of living and dying. This expansion of evidence-based medicine has helped to transform end of life rituals, and we have incorporated medicine into every element of dying. However, if we see death as failure, we will always fail.

For millennia, humankind has been trying to understand and interpret death. With this desire for understanding, humans have developed rituals. As one article describes, “A ritual [is] a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects performed in a specific place and sequence of time. Rituals help participants to cross from their present situation to another and, therefore, describe an important change in status[1].” While end of life rituals have traditionally been steeped in cultural and religious significance, the modern narrative is increasingly dominated by science and medicine. It is the presence of machines and a hospital bed that signals a transition.

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[1] Pace, J. C., & Mobley, T. S. (2016). Rituals at End-of-Life. Nursing Clinics of North America, 51(3), 471-487.

About the Author

Margaret Walker is a dual MD/MPH student at Northwestern University and is interested in interpreting complex medical information for the general public. She obtained her BS in computer science and molecular biology from MIT and developed an interest in blogging. Beyond science, she enjoys reading (anything and everything), exploring Chicago, and biking along Lake Michigan.